Red Penguins: Cross-Check, by David Bax
Being an irreverent American documentary about Russia, the ironic employment of “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” on the soundtrack of Gabe Polsky’s Red Penguins won’t come as a surprise. Neither will the songs of the partially Russian-inspired folk-punk band Gogol Bordello. These musical choices are, to be blunt, obvious. Then again, sometimes–like ordering another round at the bar–the most obvious decision is also the most fun one. And, in this case, it provides sly cover for the squareness of the fact that this movie has more on its mind than it appears to.
Polsky is also the director of 2014’s engaging Red Army. As such, he has now cornered the market on documentaries about the relationship between Russian and American hockey in the period on either side of the fall of the Soviet Union. This more overtly wacky follow-up to the previous film relates the true tale of when a group of investors including the owners of the Pittsburgh Penguins, along with Mario Lemieux and Michael J. Fox, decided to see if they could turn Russia’s army hockey team–arguably the most successful hockey team of all time–into a profitable venture. With a wealth of nearly unbelievable archival footage, Red Penguins captures the quixotic moment when a pillar of Soviet national pride tried to transform itself into a product.
Polsky steers into the “Can you believe it?” craziness of the story like a drunken Zamboni driver. Details like the existence of a strip club in the basement of the arena bolster the image of the post-Soviet Russians as a bunch of drunken party animals.
But the biggest character by far in Red Penguins is the American marketing executive Steven Warshaw, who moved to Moscow and pulled every trick he could think of to get people to buy tickets, including bringing some of those strip club employees out of the basement and onto the ice. His other exploits I’ll leave for you to discover on your own but it’s somehow comforting to see that Warshaw hasn’t lost his step today. Three decades later, he’s still spinning, punching up his own interview answers even as he’s giving them.
It’s not a spoiler to say that the investment venture was an ultimate failure; I mean, when was the last time you heard about a Red Penguins game? But Polsky isn’t here to condemn or to mourn. Red Penguins is more of a gently mocking portrait of Western hubris, the North American chauvinism that assumed, once the wall and all it represented were down, that Russians would embrace “freedom” according to the consumerist terms by which we tend to define it. Sure, it’s funny to see the stalwart Red Army coach Viktor Tikhonov holding a big Tweety Bird. And it’s bizarre to learn that one of the selling points of attending a game was the free toilet paper (issued to each attendee two meters at a time as they entered the restroom).
But all of this boils down, the movie suggests, to the possibility that American culture simply cannot grow in Russian soil. When we think of ways of life this unlike ours, we tend to think of small, remote civilizations. It’s difficult, sometimes, to imagine that a country as large and influential as Russia can be so different from our own. For all the laughs in Red Penguins, perhaps the biggest joke is that the Russians might find us as strange as we find them.